Justice

“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8 NIV

We had some anniversaries this month. April 15 was the day last year that we sold our home. April 18 was when we were issued a building permit for our new home in Trinity Gardens. April 29 marks two years since we bought our Warsaw Avenue property. We are approaching the anniversary of moving into the home on First Avenue. 11 months. It’s amazing how much life can change in less than a year. I was walking the hounds today and my head was filled with thoughts and observations. At one moment, I can feel completely at home like I have lived here all my life. Then the next moment, I suddenly realize that I am the only white guy walking down the street. The only white guy in sight. What am I doing here?  I could be anywhere!

I watched a 2 minute video today about justice. I hope you will watch it. It solidified some thoughts for me. The issues of justice and community development seem overwhelming especially from the outside. But as the video clearly states, when you get close to the problem; you meet the people; they become part of your family; then you fight. You don’t see the enormity of the problem. You see individuals who are struggling. You see “an” individual that you can help. Our little church has now met for almost 2 years.  We have seen some people come and go. We have seen some people draw close and then push back. We know of folks dealing with spice addiction, with alcoholism, with sexual sin.  Has our presence changed anyone? There are many answers to that question, but the ultimate answer is that we can never change anyone. Only Christ can. Only the risen Lord can empower folks to resist temptation and overcome their struggles. But we have been called to be a faithful presence. I remember about two years ago discussing whether we would have our 5pm gathering on a certain Sunday since other events were happening in the morning or perhaps other conflicts. I remember saying, “We will be there to sing a song and read God’s word no matter what.  We will be a faithful presence at that building on every Sunday.” That has become a mantra of sorts.  Being a faithful presence through good and bad, through ups and downs. We feel called to be here. God is changing us in this process and it is up to Him to change those that we love around us.

This week we were working in the front yard and a man that we know walked by slowly with his cane.  He stopped to talk and rambled a little, but said that he was glad we were in the neighborhood. He was glad that I walked around with my hounds.  He was glad that we built a house and were “out taking care of it.” He was glad that we and our pastor were involved with our neighbors. He finished his encouragement with a “I love you.”

Faithful presence, acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. To God be the glory! Amen.

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It’s a beautiful day

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“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood…. I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.”  ©Fred Rogers 1967

I thought of that first line as I looked out on the early Sunday morning sun from our back porch. I knew it was from Mr. Rogers but I had to go look up the full lyrics. I guess I never listened carefully after that first line, but the rest of the lyrics struck me. “I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.” Just seems to fit. Saturday afternoon, Charlene & I took the three hounds for a walk. That’s an adventure in itself. We first met “Ready Freddy” working on the porch of a pretty run down house that he had just rented from a relative. He was slow to open up, but didn’t want us to leave after the conversation flowed. Hopefully he’ll join us for lunch at the church on Tuesday. He was blunt with one question. “I’ve seen your new house.  Why did you move into this neighborhood?” I didn’t try for a long answer.  The words that came out were, “Because we love people.”

We then stopped in to visit two of the elderly shut-ins that Charlene delivers lunch to each Tuesday.  They welcome Charlene like she’s been in their families forever.  One asked her to pray for a specific need.  She stayed with the second one an hour or more to listen to life stories. (I had to take the hounds home!)

No dramatic epiphany today.  Just a story about an ordinary Saturday in our neighborhood, and it feels really good.
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(I apologize if there is a questionable ad below. Please ignore & forgive me. I really don’t want to pay $30 to block them but might have to.)

C.O. pending!

A certificate of occupancy.  The city permitting process for construction culminates with a certificate of occupancy that allows you to “dwell” in a newly constructed home.  Before that is issued, you are not supposed to “dwell” in that home.  We bought our property on April 29, 2013.  We sold our historic home of 13 years on April 15, 2014; received our building permit on April 18; poured the foundation on July 25 and passed all building inspections on December 12, 2014.  Just waiting on official paperwork now. What a whirlwind of life!

I started thinking about these words occupancy & dwelling.  I have a negative feeling about occupying something.  It sounds oppressive or aggressive.  I like the thought of dwelling in a home or in a community.  In the Old Testament, the Lord is said to dwell among his people.  The Hebrew word mishkan is translated as dwelling place.

As an outsider to Trinity Gardens who has moved in, I do not want to be seen as occupying. I do not want to be an occupier.  That sounds like an invading army taking over a land.  Not a positive way to love and interact with people created in the image of God.  My desire is to dwell.  To live and reside among the people of Trinity Gardens.  To love them and learn from them. To seek common ground in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To glorify God together by enjoying Him together.  We are in the season of Advent when we celebrate Christ coming to earth to dwell among us. I pray that I will dwell in Trinity Gardens with the love, mercy, & grace that can only be given by my Lord.  Merry Christmas and Happy Dwelling…..

Mission work?

As I interact with friends and colleagues who have heard about my move to Trinity Gardens, I often get a question.  It goes something like, “How’s your mission work going?”  I smile and tell them how wonderful life is in our new neighborhood, but I cringe when I hear that word “mission.”  My own father has questioned my decision (and probably my sanity) to build a home in this neighborhood.  He’s worried that I won’t ever get my money back.  My sister had to use the word “mission” to explain it to him.  She compared me to a missionary in a foreign country.

This is not a mission work.  This is real gospel life.  We have chosen to live in a neighborhood that is materially poor, under-resourced, and deprived of almost all of the opportunities that middle class America takes for granted.  We have made a significant financial investment to be there and don’t plan to ever leave.  Thinking of it as a mission work keeps you from becoming an equal with those around you.  You see yourself as somewhat superior, coming in with answers.  I cannot think of it as a mission.  It is my life.  I want to meet my neighbors, expressing full acceptance of them in the place that they are now.  I don’t come with a 3 step plan to make them different or to move them to another place.

By the way, my father is right.  I won’t ever get my money back.  I could never sell my new house so I’ll be there until the Lord calls me to Glory.  And one other correction:  I do come with one answer to share; and that’s the real, true, living Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And that makes me smile more than the word “mission.” 🙂

Wisdom found

Trinity Family Ministries had its start working with youth at the rec center.  But another group of people that I feel drawn to is older black men. I love to meet and talk with an older black man with some grey hair or grey sprinkled through his beard. I see a man who has stories to tell.  He was born into a system of segregation and discrimination. He lived through the civil rights movement to see great changes but also knows where he is still left out of areas of society. Even this morning, I met Reuben Brown on a 6am walk with the dogs.  Didn’t get to talk long, but I hope I spend more time with him. In prior months, I have met Cozy Brown & Eugene White. And Monteil, Selwin, Vertis, Donald, Anthony, George, Larry, Stanley, & Red….  I don’t know all their last names yet but I do know that they are worth knowing. There is wisdom to be gleaned from their life experience.  I desire to know more of their lives so that mine may be enriched.

Hound love

I don’t have an verbose post today. I just had to share this great photo taken by Charlene. We walk Toby 3-4 times a day, and meet folks every time. He got a hug from this sweet girl yesterday!

Build houses and live in them

I spent a few days at the CCDA conference in Raleigh.  That is the Christian Community Development Association if you don’t know, and I commend this organization to you.  It grew out of the life work of John Perkins.  His life story is worth investigating.  The conference gathered a diverse group of people from across the country and some from around the world.  The number of speakers and workshops was overwhelming.  I only got a small exposure to a few of them and their wisdom.

The biblical theme verses for the conference were taken from Jeremiah 29.  There is a well-known and often mis-interpreted verse from Chapter 29, and I am sure you can recite it.   For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV)  As one modern commentator said, “It’s not about YOU!”  That verse is a multi-generational promise and the “you” is plural.  It is a group of people, a nation, or perhaps an extended family. Another well-known verse is:  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV)  Verse 7 is a nugget of wisdom and a call to serve your neighbor, your city, those whom God has placed you among.

I’m taking these in reverse order for another verse caught my heart, verse 5.   Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. (Jeremiah 29:5 ESV)  I had read all this before, but that verse just came to life.  I am building a house.  I am building a house in a community that many people would not like to be in.  They would compare it to the exile in Babylon. I have an advantage since I don’t consider myself being exiled to Trinity Gardens.  God has placed in my heart & soul, a love for the people and the place. I have made a choice (with God’s prodding) to make this move.  God, through his prophet Jeremiah, was telling them that their exile would be long.  Don’t sit in a tent and plan to leave soon.  Build a house and dwell there.  Plant gardens. Provide for your family.  Verse 6 even tells them to take wives in the community and establish families.

I heard a speaker at the conference remind us to be patient.  He said plan on a 15 year ministry in a place. Don’t plan on a couple years or you may as well not start it. Too many pastors and other folks who commit to communities of need become weary and they burn-out.  They give up and walk away from the calling to a particular place.

I ask for your prayers as Charlene and I put down physical roots in a place to stay a long time, perhaps the rest of our lives.  Pray for others that are doing this in communities across our nation.  The speaker who urged patience and long term commitment has earned the right to say it.  He is approaching 40 years of teaching and pastoring in a community of need in the Chicago area.  He is not just making a recommendation.  He is speaking from life experience.

By the way, I’m not sure if my formerly swampy lot will sustain a garden like verse 5 commands, but my pastor, Scott, and my friend, Lachavian, sure had a blessed garden during 2014.  They took it to heart and planted the garden as well as building the house. The produce was good!

A new lens

I first drove into Trinity Gardens around 1990. As a dentist, I volunteered to screen elementary school kids for dental problems during February. I was assigned Brazier Elementary and had no idea where it was located. Using an old-fashioned paper map, I found an easy way in that used a main street and I avoided most of the neighborhood. I did that for 10-12 years really having no interaction with the neighborhood. In 2002, we were invited to visit Mt. Hebron Church and ventured a little deeper into the neighborhood. Here we were attending a black church in a black neighborhood. I still took the most direct route to Victory Avenue and avoided most of the neighborhood that looked a little scary to me. Over the following 10 years, my wife explored the neighborhood, offering the after-school Bible Club and picking up kids for church on Sunday. I heard all about Katye Street, and Carter Street, and Jessie Street, and Lincoln Street. But to me they were just street corners where she went to pick up kids.

In 2013, I began to enter the neighborhood more with her. As I drove the streets, the first impression was the poverty. I estimate that 25% of the houses are vacant and boarded up. Another 25% are in serious disrepair and should be condemned. The remaining housing is still very much below the standard of middle-class America. I have moved into a 1200 sq ft brick house in the neighborhood. I have been here for almost 3 months. I thought I just wanted to be here while my retirement home is being built 3 blocks away, but I have seen that God wanted me to live here in this humble house and meet people. A white guy in the hood is definitely an outsider, but if I had moved directly into our brand new 2200 sq ft house, I believe it would have been a stumbling block to building relationships. I will have lived on First Avenue for at least 6 months before we move into that house, and I feel sure that people will rejoice with us and enjoy that new home rather than see us as outsiders moving in.

After living here 3 months, driving the streets as needed, and walking Toby everywhere, my view of the neighborhood is different.  I don’t see the vacant houses. I don’t see the weed-filled ditches. What do I see now? I see people. I see people. I meet people and try to learn their names. The kids know Toby’s name and call out to him from down the street. There are wonderful people here. I am blessed to have made these new friends. One of these friends brought us two trays of chicken salad this week. It has been great. I’ve been eating it for days on sandwiches, with chips, and in a lettuce wrap. She just did it to bless us. She then volunteered to cook the Sunday meal for 75 people after church Sunday. This is an example of real community and deepening relationships.

The lens through which I see my neighborhood has changed. The lens of the Gospel has allowed me to see people, not old houses.  To desire deeper relationships and not to pull away from strangers. To take risks and not be self-protective.  I recently read this from Paul Tripp, “Grace calls us to do things that we have no desire or power to do and then gives us the willingness and ability to do them.”

May God continue to give me a clear lens to see people and to reach out with the Gospel.

 

I got noticed and posted :-)

I don’t do FaceBook but someone showed me this exchange where someone noticed Toby & me walking the streets.  Last person confused me with Pastor Scott Moore which happens a lot, unless we’re standing next to each other.

 

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Why did you move here?

I have done a lot of thinking during my 2 months in Trinity Gardens.  I have had many wonderful conversations with total strangers who are now at least acquaintances, if not friends yet.  The question that I always expect is “Why did you move here?”  I don’t think I’ve heard it exactly like that yet.  I’ve been asked where I moved from; do I like the neighborhood; where did I grow up; and other similar questions.  But I really think they have that unspoken question on their mind, “Why did you move here?”

My spiritual answer would be “for the glory of God, and to see Christ shared and exalted in the lives of the community.”  But there are many answers to that question, on many different levels.  I also have to check my motives when I answer that question.  Did I move here to attract attention; to do something other professionals would be scared to do; or perhaps to get accolades or the praises of men?  I hope and pray that is not so.  Many people have praised the move that Charlene and I have made but I always redirect that to God; for in our modern, self-centered society, this move is not one that you can make on your own.  When I’m told “You’re doing such a great thing,” I answer, “God has and is doing great things.  We’re just part of it.”

I believe that we moved here because we love the people of Trinity Gardens.  We want to know them personally and learn from them.  They have much to share with society & with the broader evangelical church.  I didn’t come here to tell them how to live their lives, but to learn from them, to love them as neighbors, and live in common community.  My outlook on the world will be changed, and as I earn the respect & trust of my neighbors, perhaps God will use me to encourage them.  Poverty-stricken communities are pushed to the side.  The majority culture needs to admit that they can learn something from these communities.  My pastor published a blog entitled “Why We Need the Hood.”  I encourage you to read it.

Until the next post, please pray.  We are seeing great fruit from our year of meeting as a church in the neighborhood.  We are approaching the anniversary of our first service, August 18.    May God continue to build bridges of trust and communication in Trinity Gardens.